Tyler Summitt takes his first head coaching job after just two seasons as an assistant at Marquette. (J. Meric/Getty)
Don’t let Tyler Summitt’s age fool you; he’s spent more time around success than many seasoned basketball coaches. Summitt’s mother, Pat, was the legendary architect of a Tennessee program that capped a run of three straight national championships – the first three-peat in women’s hoops history – in 1998, when Tyler was only 7 years old. Through mingling with the Lady Vol players and regularly traveling on team road trips, Summitt became immersed in a program that knew nothing but success.
Summitt can still recall plenty from a childhood surrounded by orange and white. One bitter rival, in particular, is hard for him to forget.
“I remember pulling up onto Louisiana Tech’s campus and not being able to see the ground because there were so many fans,” Summitt says now. “I remember walking into the arena, and just noticing the intensity. Really, that was the stage of women’s basketball. Louisiana Tech was the standard that everybody set the bar to. Now it’s UConn, now it’s Notre Dame. But Louisiana Tech and Tennessee, that was the standard.”
More than 15 years later, the boy who once cut down championship nets with his mother at Tennessee is tasked with resurrecting a program at Louisiana Tech. Summitt, 23, was introduced as the Lady Techsters’ newest head coach on April 2 after two seasons as an assistant at Marquette. The Techsters’ hope Summitt’s championship pedigree – and his youth – will inject life into a once-proud program, one that boasts three national titles and 13 Final Four appearances.
In truth, Summitt’s arrival likely raised a few eyebrows in Ruston. After all, it wasn’t long ago that the 23-year-old Summitt couldn’t even buy a beer. But this chain of events was set in motion long ago. Summitt first caught the coaching bug while watching his mother lead Tennessee to those three straight titles in the ‘90s. The Lady Vols’ 1998 championship came courtesy of a 93-75 title-game win over Louisiana Tech in Kansas City. “At that time, my friends were saying they wanted to be firefighters or policemen,” Summitt said, “but I always wanted to be a head coach.”
Landry Kosmalski, who coached Summitt in high school at Webb School of Knoxville (2005-09), said his work ethic was “what you’d expect from Pat Summitt’s kid.” His small size (6-foot-1, 180 pounds) never slowed him.
“He really wanted to win at everything,” Kosmalski said. “As a coach, I love that, but when we would stretch, just going from the baseline to halfcourt, he’d want to be first. I had to say, ‘Don’t be first. Stretch the right way.’
“It’s hard for him to not want to finish first. That’s just his personality.”
Once Summitt arrived at Tennessee, he built on his personal experience with the Lady Vol program by serving as a student assistant on his mother’s coaching staff. Tennessee won Pat Summitt’s final two national championships in 2007 and 2008 with Tyler on staff. In 2010, Tyler Summitt opted to walk on to the men’s program under Bruce Pearl. Summitt never sniffed much playing time, but by that point his path was already winding towards coaching.
Tyler celebrates his mother's third-straight national championship, in 1998. (University of Tennessee Photography)
Current Tennessee coach Holly Warlick played for Pat Summitt and served on her staff as an assistant for 27 years before taking over as head coach after Summitt’s retirement in 2012. Warlick has known Tyler since he was crawling around the basketball offices in diapers, and the Lady Vols’ coach says now that his pedigree was undeniable once he arrived as a student at Tennessee.
“When he was involved with us, just his knowledge of sitting down and talking about the game and players and relationships -- you just knew,” Warlick said. “You see what he’s passionate about, and it comes out.”
Summitt began a habit during his high school days that extended into his time with Tennessee and, now, to his tenure with the Lady Techsters. He takes neatly organized notes from practices and stores them in his computer for reference. Warlick said Summitt would regularly have “books upon books of notes” at his side in Knoxville, a basketball encyclopedia that served as the foundation for his growth in the coaching world.
That foundation led Summitt to Marquette, and last year head-coaching opportunities began to pop up. Summitt, who married his high school sweetheart, AnDe (short for Anne Dennis), last June, interviewed for open positions at Coastal Carolina and UT-Chattanooga in 2013. More schools began reaching out after the new year, but this time Summitt stiff-armed other suitors and focused on a Louisiana Tech program he knew well.
Of course, it’s hard to ignore the possible correlation between Summitt’s age and his last name. In high school Summitt used to play in front of student sections that would chant “momma’s boy” whenever he touched the ball, sometimes with his mother in the stands. His rapid climb through the coaching ranks won’t help the notion that he’s trading on his mother’s name, but Summitt has come to terms with the reality of his career.
“Something that I learned from my mom and others is this: I’m always going to have to have thick skin,” said Summitt. “I don’t care if I’m 23 or if I’m 60, it doesn’t matter. There’s always going to be at least one critic. My goal isn’t to go out there and prove everybody wrong. My goal is to make every single person in our program the best that they can be. If I focus on that process, the results will take care of themselves.”
Warlick said there’s much more to Summitt than his last name.
“The Summitt name didn’t seal the deal,” she said. “There are a lot of kids whose father or mother are coaches, and they haven’t gotten this opportunity. Did it help get his foot in the door? Probably. But he had to come in and seal the deal, and he had to answer some pretty tough questions to show he’s mature enough and passionate enough to want this job.”
Summitt isn’t concerned with how he got to Ruston. His primary focus is to make Louisiana Tech a force in women’s basketball again. Between 1974 and 2002, Hall of Fame coaches Sonja Hogg and Leon Barmore won 883 games with Tech, including all three of the program’s national championships. The late Kurt Budke took over for Barmore in 2002 and went 80-16 in three seasons before moving to Oklahoma State, where he was killed in a plane crash in 2011.
But the program’s success has stalled since Budke’s departure from Ruston. The Lady Techsters won only 59.6 percent of their games under Chris Long and, most recently, Teresa Weatherspoon. Louisiana Tech has the fourth-most NCAA tournament appearances (27) of any women’s program but hasn’t gone dancing since 2011.
Folks may knock Summitt’s experience, but no one can claim the young coach is unfamiliar with success.
“If you ask anybody who grew up as closely to a profession as I did, they’ll tell you they just don’t know any other way,” Summitt said. “I don’t know anything but a championship mentality. That’s what we’re going to have here at Louisiana Tech.
“Everything we do -- not just on the court, but in the classroom, in the office, in the hotel, walking through the airport -- we’re going to walk, talk and act like a championship team. Growing up and seeing that everyday [at Tennessee], it was a blessing.”
Summitt faces an uphill battle with the Lady Techsters, who finished 14th in Conference USA last season. Changing the culture of a program is not an overnight process, and Summitt knows that. First he has to sell a new direction to players and the Ruston community. Summitt made a big splash within hours of being hired in Ruston by naming Mickie DeMoss as Louisiana Tech’s associate head coach. DeMoss served as an assistant at Tennessee for 20 years and was a member of the Lady Techsters’ inaugural team in 1974.
Come fall, fans might notice shades of Pat Summitt roaming the sidelines at Thomas Assembly Center. Does that mean the Lady Techsters’ new coach inherited his mother’s famous steely-eyed stare?